The Phantom of the Opera is a novel by French writer Gaston Leroux. As per the information I found on Wikipedia, the story of the Phantom of the Opera first appeared in serial form in Le Gaulois from 23 September 1909 to 8 January 1910. It released in the book form in late March 1910. It is a literary masterpiece filled with the intensity of love and pain of longing. Some people call it a gothic novel. Some call it a horror romance. But all agree that it is a brilliant piece of literature. Not surprisingly, the book has been adapted into several stage and movie adaptations.
I don’t have the genius to fully understand such a masterpiece. But let me mention what I think make this book a celebrated classic.
My review of The Phantom of the Opera
The mingling of fact and fiction:
The remarkable thing about The Phantom of the Opera is that it makes you unsure whether you are reading about real events or fictitious. In fact, people are still trying to unearth how much of this book is true and how much pure imagination.
The author has used actual place, incidents, and prevailing rumors to narrate a gripping story of love & longing. The opera house mentioned in the book is real. It is the Le Palais Garnie designed by French architect Charles Garnie and commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III.
Some of the incidents included in the story are real. For example, the falling of the grand chandelier. Leroux also mentions the burying of some phonographic recordings in the cellars of the opera house. That actually happened in 1907. Even the underground lake which plays such a significant part in the book is real. It is now used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.
In short, the story of The Phantom of the Opera combines facts and rumors with fiction. The history is so marvelously blended in the book that it is difficult for the reader to judge which is which. The mystery about the existence of the Opera Ghost deepens because Leroux boldly claims in the book’s beginning, “The Opera ghost really existed. He was not, as was long believed, a creature of the imagination…” the author reiterates in the epilogue that the ghost was real. He goes into the details of all the research he did to find the whole story of the ghost. And he held on to this claim even on his deathbed. No wonder then that researchers are still trying to unravel the truth behind this phantom.
The narrative technique:
Gaston Leroux’s narrative techniques further encourage the readers to believe they are reading history instead of fiction. The author moves the story forward by ‘reporting’ interviews, memoirs, and letters of the people who experienced the strange occurrences caused by the Opera Ghost. He goes to great length to inform the readers how he acquired these interviews and documents. All this makes the story seem real.
Leroux is brilliant in keeping the readers hooked to the suspense about the phantom. It is clear to the reader that the ghost is a person. He is very cunning, dangerous, and wants money. But the way he makes things happen feels nothing short of supernatural magic. So, “is the ghost real or not?” readers keep on wondering.
The Phantom of the Opera is not a long book. You can easily finish it within 5 or 6 hours. The narrative is tightly paced. There are many fantastic scenes capable of gripping the reader’s imagination. Each of these scenes works to heighten the suspense about the ghost and intensify the conflict.
The narrator is constantly present in the book, reminding the reader again and again that he is narrating a history, not telling a story. The plot is focused and does not divert into subplots. It does not concern itself about the socio-political situation in France. Prologues and Epilogues are used and they both try to convince the reader that the ghost was a real person and that the author has evidence of it.
The opera house:
The Phantom of the Opera is one of those books in which the location plays as important a part as any character. Think of the novel Wuthering Heights. (Check out my review of Wuthering Heights). It seems almost impossible to envision the story of Heathcliff and Catherine in any other place. The grand opera house holds the same importance in The Phantom of the Opera. Scenes don’t just take place within it. They rise from the opera’s stage, staircase, roof, dark passageways, and the deep cellars. The opera house adds a sense of grandeur and mystery to the story.
The author has used a real opera house for his story. It was a bit hard for me to understand the descriptions of its various places and machinery. But it was clear that the author knew the place well.
While the grandeur of the opera house is there for everyone to see, the author takes the readers to the opera house’s depths that only a few have seen. The mysterious depths where a lonely wretch lives in a house (which has a torture chamber and a cellar full of gunpowder ready to blow up!) by the underground lake. The antiquity of the opera house and its eerie depths add to the dark and mysterious atmosphere of the book.
The book has several major and minor characters. These include the angelic heroine Christine Daae, the young and innocent hero Vicomte Raoul de Chagny, the demonic Opera Ghost, and the mysterious Parisian. Other than these 4 central characters, there is a horde of minor characters. All of them have their unique characteristics and are easily distinguishable. However, I cannot say I felt connected to any of them.
Erik – The Phantom of the Opera:
Finally, we come to the Phantom. His real name is Erik. He is also called the Opera Ghost (O.G.). the Trapdoor Lover, and the Angel of Music. The only person who knows who Erik is calls him blackguard and demigod and believes Erik is capable of any cruelty.
Yet, he is an unfortunate wretch who might have been recognized as a genius if he was not so deformed and ugly. He tells Cristine, ‘know that I am built up of death from head to foot and that it is a corpse that loves you.” His skin is deathly pale and he has a death’s head. He has no nose, and his eyes are sunken so deep they look like skull-like eye sockets. They can be seen only in dark when they gleam yellow. He is as thin as a skeleton. He has only a few dark brown hairs behind his ears. And as Christine says, his hands are cold and stink of death.
His monstrous ugliness is such that his father never saw his face and his mother never let him kiss her. When he ran away from his home, gypsies showed him as a freak at fairs. But he is an ingenious freak. He sings like an angel, writes a musical composition like no other, is a master ventriloquist, and a brilliant inventor. His inventions entertain sultans and princesses but also put his life in danger. And as the Parisian tells us, “He was guilty of not a few horrors, for he seemed not to know the difference between good and evil.”
At the time when the story of the book takes place, he is living in the opera house’s basement in a dwelling that can blow up the entire opera house in a moment and has a torture chamber nobody can escape from.
But amid all his ugliness, ingenuity, and horror, Erik — the Phantom of the Opera — wants only two things:
He longed to be someone “like everybody else.” And he wants to be loved for himself. When he believes he has found love, his greatest joy is “I am loved for my own sake.” He repeats these words again sometime later as, “I am loved for my own sake?” and again, “she loves me for myself! …”
In my book #JustRomance I wrote, “Beauty is one prejudice we’ll never be free of. Whatever is beautiful, we think it good.” Similarly, whatever is ugly, we think it bad. And that is the theme of The Phantom of the Opera. It is a tragedy of a larger-than-life character who would have been revered for his brilliant mind and musical skills, had his face not been so ugly. Erik is a character that horrifies you as he tugs at your heart. He is capable of any crime and any cruelty. He thinks nothing of committing murders. But this cruelty is not his own. It is what he got from the world and is now paying back.
Erik of The Phantom of the Opera is much similar to Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. (Check out my review of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame). Both live in a grand ancient structure. Both are hideous in appearance and hungry for love. Quasimodo is saved by a priest who pities him. Erik is saved by a man who is terrified of him and considers him a demigod. But while Quasimodo is humble and sacrificing, Erik is proud of his powers, demanding, and destructive. But they both long for only one thing — to be loved for themselves.
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